Rising Stars: Ronaldo Vieira provides hope for the future at Leeds United
Leeds United went and did a bit of a Leeds last week.
The arrival of Andrea Radrizzani as chairman and majority owner following the completion of his buyout from Massimo Cellino brought with it a wave of optimism and positivity around Elland Road. Two days later it had disappeared following the departure of Garry Monk.
Whether the days of basketcase ownership are over at Leeds remains to be seen, but it was hardly an encouraging start to Radrizzani’s tenure.
Monk had achieved the unthinkable, surviving the manager eater Cellino for a whole season by inspiring the Whites to their most promising campaign for over a decade. Yet it still ended in supporters cursing their luck.
The events, however, did overshadow one extremely auspicious piece of news to come out of the club, and one which suggests the times could actually be a changin’ in LS6.
Less than 24 hours after Radrizzani’s takeover had been completed, Leeds announced that their precociously talented midfielder Ronaldo Vieira had signed a new four-year contract.
— Leeds United (@LUFC) May 24, 2017
A club rewarding one of their most highly-rated young players with a long-term deal should seem like common sense, but that’s not how things have been done in West Yorkshire in recent years.
Charlie Taylor is set to join a Premier League club when his contract expires at the end of the month.
Lewis Cook was sold to Bournemouth last summer after entering the final 12 months of his deal. Sam Byram left for West Ham in January 2016 with only six months left to run on his contract.
Even Alex Mowatt, whose career had admittedly stalled at the club, departed for Barnsley in the middle of Leeds’ play-off push before his deal ended this summer.
Helped by Monk
But Vieira has been convinced to commit his future to Leeds – and he already has one advantage over his aforementioned predecessors.
The ludicrously high turnover of managers since Simon Grayson was sacked by Ken Bates has left youngsters having to adapt to different training methods, styles and, most significantly, attitudes towards the actual coaching of players.
Taylor made his debut under Grayson and was a Leeds United player under eight different managers in total, plus three Neil Redfearn spells as caretaker boss. Byram played under seven managers, Mowatt six and Cook five (in only two seasons).
While Vieira was handed his Leeds debut on the final day of the 2015-16 season by Steve Evans, the 18-year-old has spent the vast majority of his time as a senior player under the tutelage of Monk, developing under one of the brightest coaches in England.
Full house. #lufc
— The Square Ball (@TheSquareBall) May 7, 2017
He had been thrown in at the deep end by the former Swansea City manager, playing the full 90 minutes of the shambolic 3-0 defeat at QPR on the opening day of the season. In the 72nd minute, Vieira, desperate to make an impression, naively brought down Jordan Cousins in the penalty area, allowing Tjaronn Chery to effectively seal all three points from the spot.
While Toumani Diagouraga – Vieira’s midfield partner at Loftus Road – never played for the club again, Monk kept faith with the teenager.
Undeterred by a tough start both personally and collectively, Vieira and Leeds eventually found their feet in the Championship, with his physical strength and dynamism in midfield a major factor in the club’s excellent form from mid-September to the end of March.
Balls of steel
Two fixtures against Norwich, held a fortnight apart between October and November, highlighted not only Vieira’s arresting talent but also a mental strength beyond his tender years.
In the fourth round of the League Cup, Leeds played out a rollercoaster 2-2 draw against the Canaries at Elland Road, taking the game to penalties. Marco Silvestri saved three of Norwich’s efforts, only for Leeds to fail to take advantage as Kalvin Phillips and Matt Grimes missed their spot-kicks.
In the midst of a vociferous, intense cauldron of supporters, frenzied by a full-blooded encounter and the tension of knockout football against a club with a habit for pinching your best players, Vieira stepped up to take the final penalty with the scores locked at 2-2.
In only his 12th senior appearance, he duly sent John Ruddy the wrong way to fire Leeds to the quarter-finals for only the second time in 20 years.
Just watched the penalties, Ronaldo Vieira’s 18-year-old bollocks are ridiculously impressive, so to speak. #LUFC
— Rob Conlon (@RobConlon25) October 26, 2016
The Bissau-born midfielder, who was raised in Portugal, started the next two fixtures on the bench but made another telling impact against Norwich, this time at Carrow Road.
Leeds had taken a 2-1 lead in the 74th minute, only to suffer the sucker punch of conceding late on.
In stoppage time Leeds were awarded a free-kick. Eunan O’Kane prepared to pump the ball into the Norwich box, but Vieira demanded the team-mate eight years his senior square the ball to his feet before unleashing an outstanding drive into the bottom corner from 35 yards out, stunning the hosts and winning his side all three points.
Later that month it was Ben Woodburn that grabbed the headlines in the League Cup quarter-final at Anfield, coming off the bench to become Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer, but Vieira typified an excellent display from Leeds, refusing to be overawed on the biggest stage he has played to date.
In his player ratings for the Yorkshire Evening Post, Phil Hay awarded the youngster 9/10, noting: “Made for this level? 100 per cent. Dominated Emre Can and seemed in his element in front of a crowd so big.”
— Leeds United (@LUFC) May 28, 2017
But his best performance arguably came in January, as a patched-up Leeds team beat a Derby side which had lost only one of their previous 12 fixtures in a 1-0 win far more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests.
The Whites had to field a back four consisting of three right-backs by trade, but the Rams were never able to try exploit any potential weakness, largely due to the athleticism, grit and guile of Viera, who completely dominated the midfield.
Speaking after the match, Steve McClaren summed up the player in just two words: “Vieira, wow.”
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind. Arriving in the country aged 11 after a spell in Benfica’s youth team, Vieira spoke minimal English and saw interest from Manchester City, Hull City and Barnsley fail to materialise into anything substantial before he joined Leeds on a scholarship deal relatively late, aged 17, in 2015.
Two years later, Vieira has established himself in the first-team squad, and a maiden campaign full of promise has also been rewarded by winning the club’s Young Player of the Year award and a first call-up to the England Under-20 squad for the Toulon Tournament.
But Vieira is by no means the finished article.
Obviously still developing, he has a frustrating tendency to be robbed in possession. He was dispossessed 1.2 times per game in the Championship last term, with the same average for unsuccessful touches – both figures are higher than any other central midfielder in Leeds’ squad.
• • • •
• • • •
As the campaign wore on, Vieira ran out of steam, much like Leeds as a whole.
With the best goalscorer in the division and an equally reliable defence, Leeds needed their midfield to produce more towards the back end of the season, but the blame should be apportioned as a collective unit, not on an 18-year-old in his first full season in the first team.
Leeds lacked a matchwinner in central midfield towards the end of the season, a player who could come up with a moment of inspiration in the heat of the battle, whether that be a tackle, pass, driving run or shot.
As long as he keeps developing and honing his talents, Vieira can be that player – which makes it all the more important Radrizzani matches the ambition shown in tying down the long-term future of Leeds’ best young talent with an equally impressive replacement for Monk.
By Rob Conlon